Home / Comment / In brief

The Pope and the secular problem at the heart of American politics

The Pope and the secular problem at the heart of American politics

I wonder how many American congressmen and women are relieved to have seen the back of Pope Francis after his address yesterday? In a space as ferociously partisan as American politics presently finds itself, it must be a difficult challenge to be faced with someone who cannot comfortably be claimed by either party.

For the Democrats there was much to nod along to about how the US ought to treat migrants and the environment and abolish the death penalty. For Republicans there was a strong focus on the importance of protecting family, and asides on opposing abortion and gay marriage (albeit that the latter two were less explicit and forcibly phrased than no doubt many Republicans or indeed American bishops would have liked).

None of that, of course, should have come as any surprise. Family, poverty and the environment have been Francis’s clearest interests since becoming Pope and all follow fairly naturally from the work of his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Consistent with Francis’s focus so far has been the determination to keep opposition to abortion and gay marriage, though perhaps in a less forthright way than Benedict.

But if the content was familiar, the context was fascinating. Francis is the first Pope to be invited to address Congress and it was an unusual sight to see the familiar message delivered right to the heart of the most powerful set of politicians in the world. Aside from anything else it is interesting that Francis, who has made every effort to seem humble and “in touch” with the ordinary man and woman (refusing the use of a palace, calling up those people who write to him, and the other now well-known stories), should be the first Pope to address such a collection of the powerful. There is some irony in that, and possibly a lesson for the Church more broadly in how to gain influence – perhaps today’s politicians are more likely to be willing to hear a humble, if popular, shepherd than a prince? Then again maybe that is just wishful thinking and American politicians, just as Fidel Castro did days earlier, merely want to bask in the reflected glory of a popular figure.

More broadly the context of the address was interesting because it gets to the very heart of a difficult relationship between Catholicism, religion, politics and secularism. The USA has a secular political settlement and yet has the peculiarity of having a political class who more than any other Western country are prepared (indeed expected) to talk prominently about their faith. Twenty per cent of the American population claim to have no religion, yet in the current Congress a grand total of one (out of 535) are prepared to identify as such (the Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema). 

Far more than in the UK, faith is a legitimate political marker. Here, the assisted dying bill in Parliament brings regular outpourings of criticism that religion is “interfering” in politics. In the USA taking religious stances on particular issues (particularly abortion) is a touchstone of political orthodoxy. And yet, even here it is politics and religion of a strangely secular sort, which has been brought home by the reactions to the Pope’s address.

On Twitter and in the media I have seen a host of Catholic responses from Republicans arguing that while the Pope should speak on faith and morals (abortion and politics is, therefore, safe ground), he has no competence or right to speak on economics or climate science. Firstly this is a misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine. The Pope’s teaching, for Catholics, demands assent regardless of whether it is seen as a matter of infallibility or not. Trying to ignore the Encyclical because it is on economics, and therefore not “real” in some way is not legitimate, regardless of how difficult that might make our political positions.

What it does reveal, however, is a secularisation even in Catholic American politics –  a belief that you can divide economics from religious duties into some separate world. Just as secular atheists argue that faith should be a private matter of morality divorced from the public realm, so Catholic Republicans are falling into the same trap.

Herein lies the fundamental and perhaps insurmountable difference between the Pope and his audience – American politics believes it can divide the moral and religious from the economic and political. Francis is trying to show them that they cannot do so. It seems a longshot to hope he’ll have any success.

Ben Ryan is  a Researcher at Theos @BenedictWRyan

Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e-newsletter. We'll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.

Image by Pete Souza from wikipedia available in the Public Domain




See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.